Super Metroid review
A masterwork of mystery, intrigue and what lies beyond
Developer: Nintendo R&D1/Intelligent Systems
The Metroid games may not have been the first to offer a more open ended style of level design, but it most certainly popularized it. The idea of running around a large level to find upgrades to further explore said large level is one that allows the player to satisfy their natural curosity. With that being said, the original Metroid made you feel more like a rat in a maze and its execution of the upgrade system was rather haphazard best. Its sequel on the Game Boy scaled the experience down to the point where it was virtually about as linear as Super Mario Brothers – that is to say, very linear, not at all like what the original game had intended to be. So Nintendo with the help of Intelligent Systems decided to find a happy medium between the two that'll make you feel like you're exploring a big world without feeling like you're just running around, accomplishing nothing for hours on end. Thus we get Super Metroid, which is quite a game to behold. Even today, nothing about this game feels trite and overdone – everything is there for the express purpose of satisfying your curiosity while giving you an enjoyable experience, set to an almost unsettling ambience that lets you know that you're all alone in this world - everything is going to kill you, whether to survive or because of orders from higher ups.
It begins with a recap of what happened in the previous two games – simply put, Samus had stopped the space pirates from using Metroids as biological weapons to destroy those who oppose them, and then she destroyed the Metroids on their home planet to ensure that nobody will use them for vengeance or anything sinister. However, a Metroid larva had hatched out of its egg and considered Samus its mother, so she brings it to the Ceres Space Colony so that they can conduct research on it. Unfortunately, once the recap ends and Super Metroid itself begins, the colony is attacked and the Metroid is stolen by the leader of the space pirates, Ridley. Unfortunately, Samus doesn't stop Ridley from taking the Metroid away, so she sets out to the planet Zebes, where the first game had taken place, in order to take him down once and for all. However, not all is what it seems...
Much like Alan Wake, Super Metroid's story is emphasized by its atmosphere. In its simplest form, the story is a simple tale of finding and killing space pirates in order to save the Metroid. It's a fine enough setup, sure, but where it really comes to life is in its atmosphere. The caves are dark, the inhabitants can and will kill you if you so much as touch them, and the world, while full of intrigue due to its size, twists and turns, is a cruel mistress that can horribly murder you if you take a wrong turn or step. At the same time, its sheer size opens it up to various sorts of environments. There are the caves, yeah, but there are also volcanoes that will cause you to die of heat exhaustion unless you collect a flame-retardant suit, an underwater segment that will slow you down and reduce your jumps to mere hops without a gravity suit, and abandoned stations that may or may not have space pirates and all sorts of nasty, territorial wildlife patrolling them to make sure nobody makes it through alive. In simpler terms, it's you against the world while you search for a means of defeating the space pirates and taking back what's rightfully yours. Other games of its ilk may have this going for them as well, but I've always felt that Super Metroid does this the most justice.
Plenty of this is owed to its soundtrack. Unlike most Super Nintendo games where the songs are pulse pounding and upbeat by nature, this soundtrack prefers to stay in the background as a constant reminder of your situation. There are some upbeat songs like the one that plays on the upper half of Brinstar, and there are sections in the song that instills the feeling of intrigue, but as you progress deeper into Brinstar, the upbeat song morphs into a more haunting, melancholic form. It still has the feeling of intrigue, but it lets you know that your adventure won't be sunshine and roses. But what really sets the mood is the song that plays as soon as you land on Zebes. It gives off the vibe that Zebes had become a desolate wasteland of a planet during the time Samus had left it. Once you acquire a couple of upgrades in Brinstar, it develops a melody with a haunting choir in the background to signal the arrival of enemy forces with... surprisingly good quality. If there's one thing this soundtrack does fantastically on a technical scale, it's that it's all in high quality! Perhaps it's because it's downplayed in the background somewhere for the sake of ambiance, but it sounds so crisp that it drives the atmosphere further forward. Most Super Nintendo games have smoother soundtracks than their Genesis counterparts, but the mix isn't quite as crisp. This is one of the few exceptions, and it's due to this that the soundtrack really stands out the way that it does beyond conveying just the right atmosphere.
But while an atmosphere can draw you in, a game's biggest strength is whether it can be played or not, and I'm happy to report that Super Metroid is very much playable. In short, Zebes is humungous and full of places to explore, upgrades to find and space pirates to eliminate. You can only explore so much until you realize that you're going to need an upgrade to your arm cannon or your entire suit. Perhaps you're too heavy underwater, or you're not fast enough to get through closing doors (or metal bars). Maybe you're lacking a certain bomb or weapon mode. Hell, you might not be able to fit in that small passage! Whatever the case may be, the game makes it clear that you can't progress unless you find the upgrade necessary to progress, or a way to sequence break it (it usually involves exploiting glitches that I cannot, in good conscience, tell you guys about in order to skip parts of the game). To find a lot of optional upgrades like additional energy capsules (health) and missiles (for your missile launcher – you other weapons have infinite ammo), you will be requires to look around a bit harder, but thanks to the design of Zebes, it's made at least a little clear what you'll need to do in order to find them.
It's clearly laid out not just in the sense that you cannot progress, but also the fact that once you find the upgrade, you'll most likely need to use it on order to make your way back to the beaten path and you should be able to deduce from there what this upgrade can do and to what object or surface. For instance, you'll quickly find the morph ball, and in order to progress, you'll need to roll into one in order to fit under the tiny gap, although times like these can open up the game to a problem people tend to have and that's backtracking. It's easy to see how this can be an issue as I've found myself doing a fair amount of back and forth during the latter portion of the game just to find the last few upgrades in order to face off against the second to last boss. During that time, the grip that the ambience had on me loosened a bit as I was essentially going through the same areas again and again – yeah, there was still the looming threat of death, but I've pretty much got the first encounter in the back of my head and can thus use what I learned there to make mince meat of out everything my second time through. Having said that, it's only really bad if you're going for every single upgrade, required or optional. If you're going for more required upgrades and only getting the more optional ones on the way, it's not such a big issue.
Of course, your weapons aren't just for exploring the planet, as you'll often be engaging in combat. Enemies are laid out in ways that are meant to make backtracking easier so there aren't any complex placements or a barrage of overly tough enemies – you ARE meant to do a lot of backtracking. However, enemies can still put up a fight. Oh sure, the earlier ones are easy to take down if you shoot them a few times while avoiding an easily avoidable attack, but the further you go, the more resilient they are and the more powerful and swift their attacks are. It's never truly difficult, but the later sections can be tricky to backtrack through due to their more resilent nature in tandem with doing more damage to you upon contact. Combat, in and of itself, is usually as simple as pumping plasma shots into a foe, although some may be too strong to take down with such weak projectiles. With the press of a button, Samus's arm cannon can turn into a missile launcher that can do quite a bit more damage, although as you may have ascertained from a couple of paragraphs ago, missiles are limited. The same deal goes for the bombs you can use while curled up into the morph ball – you can use up to three smaller bombs at a time that are infinite in ammo, or use one power bomb whose explosion fills up the entire screen and does a lot of damage, although power bombs are limited.
That much is fine, but sadly, the bosses aren't much more complex and can actually be rather easy for the most part – there is one boss that'll be a real pain in the ass for a while as its attacks are seemingly hard as *bleep* to dodge, but other than that, the basic gist of it all is to pump them with missiles and charged shots. They have different methods of attacks like firing projectiles at you or clawing at you, but besides being a hell of a lot more resilient and powerful in their attacks (and even filling the entire screen in the case of the iconic giant lizard, Kraid), they're a lot like the enemies. I never said Super Metroid was perfect – the bosses were a lot of fun to take down and you can still feel like a badass bounty hunter going against the odds, but when you think about it, they're far too much like normal enemies to really have much precense beyond being stronger, meatier and being accompanied by a kickass boss tune. Oh well.
However, I am happy to report that aside from that minor flaw, Super Metroid is, without question, one of the greatest games to have ever been developed. It instills a sense of forboding mystery as you explore the planet of Zebes that, quite frankly, wants you dead. From the dark caves to the creepy forest and the spooky capsized ship, there's a wide swarth of areas to cover with a sense of wonder and intrigue as you'll want to find out what potentially dangerous environment you'll explore next. To really drive the ambience forward is the soundtrack – it's just *bleep*ing brilliant as it really draws you in with its own sense of intrigue, and yet there's also a hint of danger to be found here. It's due to such a strong atmosphere complimented by excellently designed gameplay that Super Metroid stands head above heels over the majority of video games – past, present and future.
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